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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Big Deal Revisited

My less than favorable review of Big Deal Pizzeria back in May generated a number of responses, many of which disagreed with my criticisms. Since it had only recently opened when I reviewed it, I figured it was worth going back for another visit to see if things had improved or if perhaps I just caught them on a bad day.
I’ve actually stopped their twice recently, once for a midday slice and again for a large dinnertime pie. The pizzas on both occasions were pretty similar to each other, and so I think I’ve got a pretty good idea now of the kind of pizza that Big Deal is turning out these days.
Some things haven’t changed since May. As before, the crust falls somewhere between thin and medium, with a well-browned underside marked by pizza screen indentations, and it was still a bit on the floppy side.
Some things have changed, though, and for the better. For starters, the crust wasn’t greasy underneath, and it had at least a little crispness, which was more pronounced with the rewarmed lunchtime slice than with the pie, which sat through a 20-minute car ride before I got it home. The outer edge had a nice baked crunch and some interior bready chewiness.
The toppings were also better balanced than they were on the slice I got last May. In particular, the sauce had a more noticeable presence this time around. It had a mild tomatoey flavor and was applied a bit more thickly than on my prior visit. That helped to better balance out the cheese, which in May I described as thick and chewy, and the dominant player. It was much less dominant here, but I’m not sure if that’s because there was any less of it, or simply because it was better balanced out by the sauce. Either way, this time around it seemed to be in better proportion to both the sauce and the crust.
As you can see, the cheese-only side of my pie was quite well browned, more perhaps than some people might like. But if you want to call that a fault, then I’ll take the blame for ordering pepperoni on only half, in order to please everyone at home. Tough to get the pepperoni crisp without browning the cheese side a little.
And the slices of pepperoni here were a bit crisp along the edges. That’s another plus, because I don’t like it when the pepperoni is cooked just long enough to turn soft and flabby. As before, the pepperoni had a fairly mild flavor, but was more generously applied, which cumulatively gave the pizza a bit more spicy aftertaste.
So - what do I think of Big Deal now? Well, for starters, I think it’s improved since last May. It’s recognizable as the same pizza I had before, but on the whole it’s better made and better balanced. I would no longer say, as I did then, that it’s “just another big, heavy greasy slice.” I’m not ready to put it into the top echelon, either - the screen-baked crust still lacks the toasty, crackly character that can really put a pizza over the top - but this had good flavor, the components worked well together, and it seemed to have been made with care.
It's also a good sign that my single slice and my whole pie were consistent with each other. Although I give generally high marks to Big Deal's competitor down the street, I have to say that over the years I've found Acme to be plagued by inconsistency - great NY style pizza one day, and dry/burnt/misshapen crap the next. There's something to be said for knowing what to expect when you order a pizza.
So with all that in mind, I’m going to bump up Big Deal's score. That relatively soft, screen-baked crust is still dragging it down a bit, keeping this pizza from realizing its full potential, but given its other positives, I'd say this pizza was a little better than average, so I'll peg it this time at a B-.
Big Deal Pizzeria & Grill, 475 Monroe Ave. 544-2144
Mon. - Wed. 11 a.m. - midnight, Thu. 11 a.m. - 3 a.m., Fri. 11 a.m. - 4 a.m., Sat. noon - 4 a.m., Sun. noon - 10 p.m.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Petrella's, Dewey Ave., Greece - CLOSED

Petrella’s opened recently in the space formerly occupied by Slapshot Pizza & Subs in the Dewey-Latta Plaza. I never got around to Slapshot, but I stopped into Petrella’s the other day.
This is one of those places, like Carmine’s, where whole pizzas come by the (round) pie, but individual slices are rectangles cut out of a sheet pizza. I just wanted something for lunch, so this review is limited to those. I’ll have to go back sometime for a pie.
I got two slices and a drink for $4.50 + tax, which wasn’t a bad deal. The slices were pretty thick, with a slightly oily underside, all of which is typical of a sheet pizza. The medium-brown crust was dotted with airhole craters, evidencing a long rise in the pan before baking. It had some crispness, and a crunchy edge.
The sauce, which was moderately applied, had an acidic bite to it. I don’t mean that in a bad way, it was just acidic from the tomatoes. I didn’t get the impression that Petrella’s adds any sugar or other sweeteners to the sauce, which is fine.
The cheese seemed to be straight processed mozzarella, and was melted but not browned. The surface was crisscrossed by rivulets of oil that had seeped out of the cheese.
As I said, whole pizzas here come in pies - 10, 14 and 16 inches - as well as half and full sheets. For now, the toppings list is relatively basic, 12 in all, and there are four specialty pizzas - chicken wing, steak, veggie and BLT. Other options include calzones, wings, burgers, hot and cold subs, sandwiches, pasta, chicken (french and parm, plus eggplant parm), salads, sides, and “plates.”
There’s some room for eating in, though for the time being at least, the space is pretty austere looking. I’m sure they’ve got better things to worry about right now than decorating the walls, though there is WiFi. They also deliver.
These slices were pretty straightforward and basic: decent crust, tomatoey sauce, melted mozzarella. But they were well balanced, and well made overall. Keeping in mind that Petrella’s hasn’t been open long, and that I have yet to try a pie from there, I’ll give them a somewhat provisional C+.
Petrella’s Pizza Plus, 4425 Dewey Ave. 663-1210
Sun.noon - 9 p.m., Mon. 4 - 10 p.m., Tue. closed, Wed. 4 - 9 p.m., Thu. 11 a.m. - 9 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Acme, Monroe Ave.

Acme Pizza & Bar on Urbanspoon
Given the affinity between beer and pizza, it’s a little odd that there aren’t more bar/pizzerias around. There are certainly restaurants that both serve pizza and have full bars, and there are a handful of bars that are next door to pizzerias, but genuine bars that make pizza are a surprisingly rare breed.
One of the few exceptions that I can think of around here is Acme Bar & Pizza on Monroe Avenue. If memory serves correctly, Acme started out, I’m guessing, ten years ago or so, as sort of a sister establishment to Richmond’s downtown. There have been some ownership changes since then, but from the start Acme has been serving thin, New York-style pizza to its customers.
I stopped by recently to pick up a large pie to go. It had a very thin crust, and the slices were kind of floppy, with an underside that was rather pale, just lightly browned, that didn’t have much crispness, though it wasn’t greasy either. It tasted OK, but was not particularly bready. The outer lip was thin and somewhat tough. There was a bit of oven soot on the underside, and one black, burnt unidentifiable blob stuck to the inside of the box.
The cheese, which had a tangy flavor and had congealed by the time I got the pizza home, was fairly heavy for a pizza this thin, adding to the floppiness of the individual slices. The sauce was thinly applied, and didn’t have a very noticeable presence. The pepperoni was of the cup and char variety, was moderately applied, and had a decent flavor.
Acme doesn’t really do specialty pizzas, other than white pizza, and the toppings menu is pretty basic. They also make calzones, as well as a full range of standard bar food, from wings (pretty good ones, in my experience) to burgers, grilled chicken sandwiches, hot subs, salads, fried munchies, chili and homemade soup. There’s a modest but interesting lineup of beers on tap, and over 75 beers by the bottle. Another plus is that food is served right up until the 2 a.m. closing time, seven nights a week.
I’ve always thought that Acme turned out some pretty good pizza, even if it’s not in quite the same league with some of the other local purveyors of New York style pizza. The crust just doesn’t seem to have quite the flavor and texture that makes for truly great pizza, but all in all, it’s certainly not bad, and I can easily put away several slices of this stuff without complaint.
Which reminds me: as I was enjoying this pie, it occurred to me that what this really was, was good bar pizza. If you’re a bar owner, you don’t want to be serving up some thick pan pizza that’s going to get the customer full after a slice or two. This is the kind of stuff you can eat several slices of, for some time, without getting too stuffed to keep on drinking. I’m not endorsing excessive drinking, but truth be told, that’s probably what a lot of your customers prefer, too. On its own, I consider Acme pizza to be better than average, but not outstanding, so I’ll give it a B-.
Acme Bar & Pizza, 495 Monroe Ave. 271-2263
Mon. - Sat. 11 a.m. - 2 a.m., Sun. noon - 2 a.m.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Brio, Monroe Ave., Pittsford

Brio Mediterranean Bistro on Urbanspoon
Pizza Guy Note: since this post was written, Brio has closed. This location is now home to the second location of Pomodoro.
Today I'm writing about another place that does pizza in a wood-fired oven: Brio.
Before I get to the details, though, let me apologize for the poor quality of the photographs on this one. I thought I could get away with the "indoor" setting on my camera and no flash, but the light in the restaurant was just too dim. I prefer not to use the flash, because it tends to flatten out the picture, and at close range it can cause lighter areas, like the underside of a crust, to white out completely, but clearly it would've been preferable here. But though the photos may not win any Pulitzer Prizes, they should be good enough to illustrate my description.
Brio is a full-service restaurant specializing in Italian food. It’s more upscale than your basic, red-sauce type of place, but it’s not particularly cutting-edge or chichi, either. Think of an Italian chain restaurant, now make it a notch or two better than that, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Brio is all about.
Brio opened in 2002, so for around here at least, they’re a relative veteran of the wood-burning oven scene. I ordered a Margherita pizza with a white (as opposed to whole wheat) crust.
When it came, the crust had a slightly charred appearance, as expected, but it was surprisingly soft. It wasn’t greasy, but I got the impression that this was a short dough, in other words, made with a fair amount of shortening, which will result in a softer crust. The slices were not crisp, were instead quite pliable, and despite the charring, I got no “crunch” when I bit into them. The crust was thin, but had bubbled up into big, puffy airholes here and there. The outer lip was also light and puffy, enjoyable but again not very crisp or breadlike.
These were very cheese-dominated slices. Some Margheritas, especially the more “artisanal” types, come out of the oven with just a few islands of melted, fresh mozzarella atop a bed of crushed tomatoes, but this pizza was covered with a think blanket of stringy, processed mozzarella that took center stage. Bits of shredded fresh basil added some welcome herbal flavor to cut through all that cheese. The oven-roasted tomatoes (also unusual, in my experience, for a Margherita pizza), were good, but except when I got a good chunk of one, they didn’t add much flavor to the pizza as a whole, compared with fresh tomatoes, which have a less concentrated flavor, but more liquid, so that their flavor tends to spread out more over the entire pizza.
Brio’s other six varieties of pizza run the gamut from basic sauce, mozzarella and pepperoni to chicken and pesto, seafood, and grilled vegetables. The rest of the menu features several pasta dishes, steaks, and fish. Some Spanish influences also creep in, as in the chorizo pizza and the paella, which is incongruously listed under “Pasta.” There’s also a kid’s menu, and though it’s not your typical family-type place, it’s noisy enough to bring the kids without worrying about bothering your neighbors.
This isn’t the first time I’ve eaten at Brio, and my experiences there have generally been good. Casting a more critical eye on the pizza this time, though, I was a bit disappointed. It was all right and all, but here’s another place that features a wood-burning oven, yet doesn’t seem to be taking full advantage of it, at least where the pizza is concerned. Look, I’ve had wood-fired pizza that was too crisp, to the point that it was like nothing so much as a giant round cracker, but c’mon guys, you’ve got a tremendous heat source there, don’t be afraid to use it!
I don’t know - maybe it’s got something to do with the fear that diners in this area will be put off by the sight of what some might see as “burned” pizza, and maybe I’m overestimating the sophistication of local pizza lovers’ palates, but I think we’ve gotten past that point where this kind of pizza needs to be dumbed down for it to go over with the public. Wood-fired pizza places have been popping up all over here lately, and I’m guessing that what might not have flown six or seven years ago would be embraced by a lot more customers today.
I don’t mean to come down too hard on Brio - as I said, the pizza was OK - but I just think how much better than OK it could’ve, and should’ve been. Of course, it’s altogether possible that I’m in a distinct minority here, and that the overwhelming majority of Brio’s customers wouldn’t change a thing, but I’m giving this one a C+.
Brio Wine Bar and Grill, 3400 Monroe Ave., Pittsford. 586-7000
Mon. - Thu. 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 - 11:00 p.m., Fri. 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 - 11:00 p.m., Sat. 4:00 - 11:00 p.m., Sun. 4:00 - 9:00 p.m.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Roma's Cafe, University Ave.

Roma’s café is on University Avenue, just west of Culver. It’s in one of those red brick buildings near Hot Shots and Towner’s Bikes. The entrance is on the side of the building, and I would never had noticed it except for a small A-frame sign out in front with that magic word, “Pizza.”
It’s a pretty small operation, with a counter right inside the door serving up coffee drinks and other takeout items. I picked up a couple of cheese slices.
The slices had a thin crust, with a fairly thick lip at the edge. I detected a slight odor of cooking oil, but they weren’t particularly greasy, and the undersides were dry. They weren’t exactly charred, but they did have a pleasant toastiness and a bit of crispness. The edge was nice and bready, making it more than just a “throwaway” crust.
The sauce was pretty lightly applied, and took a bact seat to the cheese, which had a tangy flavor that rather dominated the pizza, particularly since the cheese layer was nearly as thick as the crust itself. It was just a little browned, and retained enough moisture to give the slice an overall wet moutfeel, despite the relatively modest amount of sauce.
Roma’s offers three types of slices - cheese, pepperoni, and a specialty slice of the day. Pies come in 10" and 14" sizes. The toppings list is pretty short - eight items - and they also have Buffalo chicken and white pizzas, plus calzones.
Non-pizza fare includes breakfast sandwiches, salads, quesadillas, wraps, chili and soup. They have a full menu of hot and cold coffee specialty drinks.
This wasn’t bad pizza by any means, and I hope they continue, but I must say that aside from that A-frame sign that caught my eye, so far this place is well under the radar. Nothing relevant came up when I googled the name and address. The menu doesn’t have the address, phone number, or hours. And the server, though not rude, was, well, not exactly friendly either.
So, back to the pizza, I’d say this was somewhat better than average, a bit out of balace, perhaps, but with a decent crust and good flavor overall. I’ll give it a B.
Roma’s Café, University Ave.
7:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m. (at least that’s what the sign on the side of the building says - I don’t know if that’s just weekdays)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

More Joe's photos

I swear I'm not on Joe's payroll, but somewhat coincidentally, some friends and I shared a large Grandma's pizza from Joe's today for lunch. I took the opportunity to get a shot of Joe's array of available slices and the Grandma's pie. Here they are, for your viewing pleasure:


And the best pizza in Rochester is ... Pontillo's?

City Newspaper's current edition has their 2009 Readers' Choice Award winners. Predictably, a chain, Pontillo's, won for "Best Pizza Joint." Nothing against Pontillo's, but this is why these awards are meaningless. There's a Pontillo's near practically everybody in this area, so of course it's going to get more votes than a single-location pizzeria, no matter how good the latter is. I swear I think Papa John's won one year.
What these awards are really about, I suspect, is attracting advertisers with the lure of allowing them to put "Voted Best ____ in Rochester" in their ads. I think City claims some sort of moral high ground compared to the D&C, which runs a similar vote every year, because City's "election" is wide open, whereas the D&C's is limited to the businesses that pay to be on the ballot. Given the nature of the voting, though, they're still doing a disservice to any out-of-towner or newcomer who makes the mistake of thinking that these really are the best establishments of their kind that Rochester has to offer.
Thanks to City, though, for reporting the opening of Hose 22 Firehouse Grill, a new restaurant in Charlotte, with pizza on the menu. I'll have to give it a try sometime.

Back to Brooklyn: Joe's Sicilian and Grandma's

I mostly try to avoid venturing into the cultural wasteland along Jefferson Road in Henrietta, but once in a while it can’t be helped. Fortunately, there is one oasis in that culinary desert, and that’s Joe’s Brooklyn Pizza.
I’ve written about Joe’s before, but I recently found myself in the area, so I took the opportunity to stop by Joe’s and try something different from my usual cheese slice. Instead, I got of Joe’s Sicilian slices, and one “Grandma’s” slice.
The Sicilian slice seemed like the same basic setup as a typical sheet pizza, but unlike most sheet pizza I’ve had, it wasn’t greasy. Compared with Joe’s thin, New York style slices, it was more chewy than crisp, but the crust had a pleasant bready texture and aroma. And while the typical sheet pizza has a hard edge with a “fried” crunch, the lip here likewise was more like a fresh breadstick. The sauce was thick and flecked with herbs, and the cheese was just a bit browned. All in all, it was like an improved version of sheet pizza.
The real standout for me, though, was the Grandma’s slice. This is made with the same thin crust as Joe’s more familiar New York style pizza, but is topped with tomato sauce, extra-virgin olive oil, diced garlic, basil, and romano cheese. It’s difficult, and would be pointless, to describe each of these components separately, because what made this so good was the way that the ingredients blended together. It shared what seemed to be the same thick, herbal sauce with the Sicilian slice, but rather than simply forming a layer between crust and cheese, the sauce took center stage, but blended with the other toppings so remarkably well that, to use a cliché, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
And then of course there’s that crust. Crisp yet chewy, not at all greasy, with a charred, toasty underside and gluteny, bready interior, it formed a perfect, complementary base for the sauce and other toppings. It really showed how great a pizza can be with relatively few, simple toppings. To resort to another cliché, it demontrated that with pizza, sometimes less is truly more.
Getting back to the Sicilian, I liked it well enough, though it didn't exactly make me a convert. I can appreciate the style, and though I'm no connoisseur I imagine this was a well made example, but for me, NY style remains the way to go. It may have something to do with the fact that Sicilian is baked in a pan, which doesn't yield the same crisp crust as a pizza baked directly on the oven floor.
The Grandma's, though, immediately jumped into the short list of my favorite pizzas. All those flavors - tomatoes, herbs, chunky garlic, that sharp romano tang, with the olive oil to bring it all together, and the crisp, bready crust underneath - damn, that was good.
As I mentioned in my previous Joe's review, Joe's is very similar to Pizza Stop, but the sauce at Joe's seems to have more of an herbal flavor profile than Pizza Stop's, which has a tomatoey brightness with a bit of natural acidity. For a regular NY style cheese slice (which to me is still my all-time favorite style of pizza, the one I fell in love with the first time I had the real thing in the City), I think I prefer Pizza Stop's. To me, a simple, straight-ahead tomato sauce is a better fit on a "plain" cheese slice, where it's essential to keep the three components - crust, sauce and cheese - in balance. But Joe's sauce worked beautifully on the Grandma's pizza, which I guarantee you I will be eating again. For that pizza in particular, but also for continuing to serve consistently good pizza in general, I'm bumping Joe's up to an A.
Joe's Brooklyn Pizza, 1100 Jefferson Rd # 23B. 424-5637
Mon. - Tue. 11 AM - 9 PM, Wed. - Sat. 11 AM - 10 PM, Sundays 12 AM - 8 PM

Monday, November 9, 2009

Amy Rose, Scottsville

Amy Rose Pizza on Urbanspoon
Today we head south to Main Street, Scottsville. Not too long ago, the chief dining attraction here would’ve been the Oatka Steak & Seafood restaurant. Named for the nearby creek, it started out as a tavern and inn in the early 19th century. Sadly, the Oatka went out of business a couple of years ago or so. It would be nice to see it reopen.
Until then, you can still grab a slice of pizza, as I recently did, at Amy Rose Pizza, just a few doors away.
These being normal size, not “mega” slices, I got two, one cheese, one pepperoni. They were fairly heavy slices, with a medium thick crust and a soft-textured, light brown underside. The crust was quite dense, and didn’t seem to have risen much, as there were no real air pockets visible.
The cheese on the cheese slice was very well browned, and had congealed into a single, unitary layer. The sauce seemed to be pretty much MIA here, although I thought I detected a slightly sweet flavor in there somewhere. Maybe it was my imagination, but either the sauce or just the slice as a whole seemed to have picked up some of the flavor of that day’s “gourmet” pizza, which was a pulled-pork pizza. They had been sitting on racks in the same enclosed pizza warmer, so it’s not inconceivable, I guess.
The pepperoni slice was quite generously topped with thin, mildly flavored slices of pepperoni. The outer lip of both slices was a bit tough and chewy.
Amy Rose has a long list of pizza toppings, as well as 14 varieties of the aforementioned gourmet pizza. That includes a stuffed pizza and a deep dish pizza, but you can also order a regular pizza with thin or thick crust, and one of four sauces - red, white garlic, pink or pesto. In short, there’s a pizza for everybody here.
Amy Rose also offers wings (described as “jumbo”), calzones, fish fry every day, hot and cold subs, burgers, dogs, soup, salad, sides and desserts as well. If that’s not enough, they serve Hershey’s ice cream (not sure if that’s a seasonal thing or not), cappuccino and chai tea. There’s some seating available, and Amy Rose also delivers all day.
It’s a good menu, certainly, and Amy Rose deserves commendation for a commitment to making its sauce, dough and rolls fresh and on-site. I wouldn’t mind coming back to try a specialty pizza or to take out a pie. But on this occasion, the slices I got didn’t impress me too much. The flavor wasn’t bad, but I have to deduct some points for the dense crust and the overly browned cheese. I also found them a bit out of balance, with the sauce barely noticeable between the chewy cheese and the crust. Next time I’m in the area, I’ll give Amy Rose another try, but for now I’ll give it a C-.
Amy Rose Pizza, 11 Main St., Scottsville 889-7590
Mon. - Thu. 9 a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri. 9 a.m. - 11 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m. - 11 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m. - 9:30 p.m.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Stromboli Express, East Ave.

Stromboli Express on Urbanspoon
If you consider downtown Rochester to be the area within the Inner Loop, then by my count there are just four places downtown where you can walk in during the day and grab a slice of pizza. (Whatever finally becomes of the former future Renaissance Square property, I think a pizzeria should be a top priority. Mayor Duffy, are you listening?)
The easternmost of this foursome is Stromboli Express, on East Avenue between Chestnut and Broadway.
As the name implies, they specialize in strombolis, with 26 varieties on the menu. But Stromboli Express also serves pizza, roughly in the New York style, and the times I’ve been there, that seems to be what most of the customers are getting. I recently stopped in at lunchtime for a couple of slices, one cheese and one pepperoni.
It took some minutes for my slices to come up, and while I was standing there, I noticed a number of small signs posted here and there displaying a certain, well, attitude on the part of the management. For example, one of them says something to the effect of (I'm paraphrasing here) “This isn’t Burger King, you don’t get it your way, you get it my way," and there several others in the same vein. Now I know they're just funny little signs, and in fact I've seen the Burger King sign at Pizza Stop, too, but I couldn’t help thinking that while one such sign can be taken mostly as a joke, seeing several like that kind of conveys the message that customer service is not exactly a high priority here. Just a thought.
Well, as I said, after a few minutes, my slices arrived. They were very thin and foldable, and though they were a little charred underneath, they were not especially crisp, except along the very outer edge of the cheese slice, which was dark and crunchy. Mostly, though, they were almost crepe-like in their soft, thin, supple pliability.
Both slices were on the saucy side. They weren’t exactly dripping with sauce, but the sauce was pretty liberally applied relative to the very thin crust. It had a complex flavor, with sweet, herbal, and tomatoey notes. The cheese was pretty basic, moderately applied and a tad browned in spots.
The slices had been dusted with a fair amount of dried herbs and, unusually, what appeared to be red pepper flakes, although not in enough quantity to register much of an effect on my taste buds (which, admittedly, have become rather desensitized over the years where hot peppers are concerned).
The wide and thin slices of pepperoni were soft, oily, and a bit spicy. They had yielded up a good bit of their fat in the form of grease, but the pizza as a whole was not overly greasy.
Despite the more than two dozen strombolis to pick from, the list of pizza toppings here is fairly modest by current standards, with 11 on offer, and there are 11 specialty pizzas on the menu as well. Stromboli Express also serves calzones, which come stuffed with ricotta and mozzarella and your choice of any one of five meats. (I’m frankly still a bit fuzzy on the difference between strombolis and calzones, but my understanding is that a stromboli is more like a baked wrap, while a calzone is essentially a baked pocket sandwich, but both are made with pizza dough.)
Outside of the pizza/stromboli/calzone trinity, Stromboli Express does wings, hot and cold subs, grilled sandwiches, salads and appetizers, pasta dinners, and a few desserts, including apple or cherry “bolis” (which would make 28 varieties altogether). There is some seating, including a couple of sidewalk tables in warm weather, and they deliver too.
I liked this pizza well enough, even if it didn’t (strom)bowl me over. Often as I’m thinking about the pizza that I’m eating, some adjective or phrase comes to mind, and here it occurred to me that this was kind of like a cross between the Piatza’s on Crittenden Rd. and Pizza Stop: thin, like both of those, with an underside that, like Pizza Stop’s, is somewhat charred and not greasy, but, like Piatza’s, floppy and not very crisp. I gave Pizza Stop an A, and Piatza's a D+. Averaging those two gives me a B-, and that sounds about right for Stromboli Express.
Stromboli Express, 113 East Ave. 546-2121
Mon. - Sat. 10 a.m. - 9 p.m., Sun. noon - 9 p.m.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Big chains and little guys: observations from a reader

I recently got an email from a regular reader with some interesting observations about my statement that it's ironic that national chains with thousands of locations often seem to be better at turning out a uniform product than are much smaller local or regional chains, with far fewer locations to oversee. The reader referenced something I'd never heard of called "Six Sigma," which sounds like something out of a spy thriller, but I checked it out and it's for real.
Anyway, I found the reader's comments interesting enough to be worth sharing. I quote them here in full.

You comment: "A place like Domino's may be able to maintain uniformity throughout its stores, but ironically, smaller chains sometimes seem to have trouble with that"...is accurate. 1. On average, their is a specific reason for disparity, or lack of consistency in regards to local...or small...'owner operated pizzeria chains'. National chains such as Papa John's or Domino's utilize and implement a business methodology know as 'Six Sigma'. Six Sigma is sophisticated, difficult to implement and even more challenging to maintain. Six Sigma was heavily inspired by six preceding decades of quality improvement methodologies such as quality control, TQM, and Zero Defects, based on the work of pioneers such as Shewhart, Deming, Juran, Ishikawa, Taguchi and others. The vast majority of small, owner-operated chains lack the educational background, intellectual capital, or financial resources to implement and/or execute Six Sigma.
Additionally..(and Pizza Guy...what I am about to suggest is an 'observation'..not a 'criticism')..the majority of small chains are either owned or operated by individuals who have been in the 'pizza business' for a number of years, and over that time period have accumulated a great deal of "hands on experience'. Many, if not 'most' of these individuals, think or honestly believe they....'KNOW' and understand the pizza business...they also believe they have a 'system' or 'business model' that works..and therein lies the conundrum.
It is very difficult and often near..impossible for these owner-operators to re-calibrate their way of thinking and engage in 'behavier modification'. And the fact that some of these local chains such as Pontillo's, Mark's, Guida's..etc..are financially successful, makes adopting or even experimenting with a new or different business methodology even more daunting.
Unfortunately, many of these small chain operators adhere to the notion, "If it's not broken, why fix it. They often view 'success' as..growth..expansion and profit, yet historically, as the number of units of the small chains grows, consistency and uniform quality do not receive, the time, energy and attention they warrant. And why would they?..I mean if a small chain of 3-5 units is lacking in consistency, why would anyone assume or surmise that by growing to 6-10 units..that would make that small chain more consistent in regards to the quality of their product.

When I go into various Pontillo's, I feel like I'm a 'riverboat gambler'..I have to 'roll-the-dice''..and hope for the best. They are all similar, but very few are the same. This lack of consistency has contributed to Pontillo's achieving zero(0) growth over the last quarter century(25yrs). Twenty five years ago, there were 25 Pontillo's..today there are still...25 Pontillo's. And that fact...'in of itself' is alright..EXCEPT for the fact that their is still noticeable disparity in terms of quality and consistency,among the 25 Pontillo's locations. On a personal note, it's sad and frustrating, because when made correctly, Pontillo's creates what I consider a very good pizza.
As far a Six Sigma is concerned, an interesting paradigm has been achieved. The national chains in the Upstate, NY area..at their very best...CANNOT put out of business the local...quality pizzerias. Yes pizzeria's come and go..and yet in many cases, the good ones, I mean the ones that create a good..very good, or excellent product have weathered..endured , the influx of the national chains and continued to succeed. The strong quality of many of the local pizzeria's..is their...'edge'. This 'edge" provides the local chains and owner-operated pizzerias', arguably, their single most important advantage.
The flip-side to this paradigm is that despite producing(on average) far superior pizzas, the local pizzerias and small chains(on average) CANNOT put out of business the National Chains (Domino's, Papa John's, Pizza Hut etc..) The national chains(on average) have business models that are far superior in regards to efficiency(food costs, labor costs,purchasing power, name branding, advertising...etc...) which enables the national chains to generate much stronger 'gross margins'. This fact, encompassed with the virtually 'unmatched" capital reserves the National Chains have verses the local chain or owner-operated pizzeria, contributes greatly to this paradigm.
I would definitely not call this interesting paradigm detente. I would refer to this paradigm however, as 'co-existence'. EXAMPLE: A Papa John's location that generates $8,500/wk in gross sales can and will, achieve a greater 'net profit' than a local, owner-operated pizzeria, or local chain that generates $10,000/wk in gross sales. It's a classic text-book example of 21st Century business tactics verses 20th Century business tactics.

(Pizza Guy again:) In a nutshell, then, the big guys - and this isn't limited to pizza - can stay in business, very successfully, despite turning out a product that is not the best that consumers can find, because they have certain other advantages working for them, like economies of scale that allow them to price their product very competitively. They also employ an approach that allows them to offer a consistent, uniform product that offers the consumer the benefit of reliability and the comfort of knowing what to expect. (Many times when traveling I've opted for the mom-and-pop local diner over the chain restaurant next door, only to be disappointed by bad food and poor service, and wishing I'd gone to the chain instead.)
A small operation that makes a superior product will be able to stay in business, despite the competition from the big guys (barring other problems such as poor location or sheer business incompetence), because some consumers will always seek out the best product. But when the little guys try to expand, they often run into problems because they lack the resources, knowledge or desire to implement the kinds of methods needed to offer the same level of quality and service at multiple locations.
As a consumer - and in particular a pizza consumer - what all that means to me is that if you value pizza that's not only good but distinctive, try a bunch of local, independent shops until you find one that you love, and then support it. You may hit a few clunkers along the way, but in the end it'll be worth it.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Cam's, Lyell Ave. and Spencerport

Cam's New York Pizzeria on Urbanspoon
Cam’s Pizzeria is a small chain with about a dozen locations in Upstate New York, ranging from Rochester as far away as Watertown. They’ve been in business since 1980, and may be the first pizzeria around here to specialize in New York style pizza.
Right now there are three Cam’s locations in the Rochester area, on Lyell Ave. (the oldest of the three, and I’m guessing one of the oldest overall), on Titus Ave. in Irondequoit, and in Spencerport at the corner of Rt. 31 and S. Union St., just off the 531 expressway.
I recently tried the Lyell Ave. location, and took some notes for a blog post, but I also unexpectedly had occasion to visit the Spencerport location, so this is kind of a hybrid review.
The Lyell Ave. slices (photos 2 and 3) had a very thin crust, with a well-browned, crackled underside and a crunchy, crackly texture. They had been rewarmed in the oven prior to serving so that may account for some of the dry crackliness.
The sauce was applied in enough quantity to be noticeable, but moderately so. It had some tomatoey and herbal flavors; I thought I detected some basil, and maybe some oregano in there.
The cheese was likewise moderately applied, in pretty good balance with the other components. It was not especially thick or stringy, and in that respect resembled a typical NYC slice. The thicker, chewier lip was less well-done than the rest of the crust, which is a bit unusual, since oftentimes the outer edge is nearly blackened, even when the rest of the crust is relatively pale.
I found the Lyell Ave. slices to be a very respectable version of NY style pizza, but the crust seemed to fall just a bit short, as it lacked a certain depth of bready character, and was instead a bit bland or white-bready. Good, certainly, but not quite great.
All the more reason, then, for my pleasant surprise by what I got at Spencerport (photos 3 and 4). I figured, newer location, younger staff, won’t be as good, and in fact I remember going there shortly after it opened a In fact, it was better. The crust was very nicely charred underneath - more so than the lower photo indicates - and it had a nice exterior crunch without being excessively dry. It was a rather well made pizza overall.
I didn’t really look much at the ovens at Spencerport, but the Lyell Ave. Cam’s uses an oven with a rotating deck, which I don’t recall seeing elsewhere. From what I’ve been able to determine, this is intended to be kind of a cross between a conveyor-belt and a standard deck oven, getting the benefits of a deck oven’s convection heat without the labor intensity and skill that deck ovens require. It seems to work; not to put them down, but the Spencerport employees didn’t exactly look like experienced pizzaioli, yet they turned out a pretty darned good pizza. (I wonder, though, if the rotation has something to do with the lip being not that well baked.)
Cam’s offers NY style pizza in 12", 16", and 20" sizes, as well as sheet and Sicilian pizzas (not quite sure how the latter two differ). The toppings list is fairly standard, and the list of specialty pizzas includes a garlic lovers’ pizza (yum) and a breakfast pizza (the Lyell Ave. location opens early if you’re into that; not sure about the other locations). They also do calzones and strombolis, wings, pasta and chicken parm dinners, salads, subs and wraps, plus a few desserts. All of their area locations offer dine-in as well as delivery (the Lyell Ave. location seems to be a popular RPD lunch spot, and I imagine they know the best places - kind of like truck drivers).
Look, you can’t beat a skilled pizza maker tending to each pie, rotating it as needed and taking it out of the oven at just the right moment. But if you’re going to try to offer good NY style pizza at multiple locations, then you’d better find a way to get some consistency in the final product. Cam’s seems to have figured out how to do that. I don’t want to get too hung up on the letter grade, but at this point I’m giving Cam’s a B+, with an eye toward possibly bumping that up a bit, subject to future visits, including the Irondequoit location, and maybe trying a full pie as well. But regardless of the grade, this was good pizza, and all the more impressive for having come from a chain. A small chain, yes, but those are often the most bedeviled by inconsistency, and from my samples thus far Cam’s has been the best of the “chain gang.”
Cam's Pizzeria, 1219 Lyell Ave. 458-8900
According to the menu, Lyell Ave. hours are as follows: Mon. - Thu. 7 a.m. - 10 p.m., Fri. 7 a.m. - 11 p.m., Sat. 8 a.m. - 11 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. - 10 p.m.
2273 S. Union St., Spencerport 349-1040. I tried to get the Spencerport location's daily hours over the phone but was given a rather brusque "We close at 10, *click*," so call ahead to make sure.
Beer and wine available (Spencerport only)

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